The Canadian Mosaic defines Canadian society as a multicultural collage rather than as a unicultural melting pot. It contrasts Canadian settlement and assimilation policies, particularly in the Great Plains, with those in the United States. Those differences are conveyed in the images of an American ethnic and cultural melting pot and a Canadian Mosaic.
The concept of a Canadian settlement mosaic developed slowly and in part as a reaction against the American frontier thesis advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1891. Turner suggested, among other things, that the free homestead system created mixed communities in which people from many different national, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds were transformed into Americans. Canada, on the other hand, allowed block settlements of different religious or ethnic groups. The result was a slower and different process of assimilation.
It was not the intention of the Canadian government to create a polyglot society, but the presence of a large French Canadian population in Quebec, concentrations of people of other ethnic backgrounds elsewhere, and government policies during the last two decades of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries to allow prospective settlers on the Prairies to settle in groups, or blocks, resulted in the cultural collage. Maps published by the Department of the Interior early in the twentieth century color-coded each township to show the ethnic or national background of the majority of the people living there. On these maps each township looked like a small tile in a large mosaic.
Government leaders expected immigrants to learn English and to accept British political institutions and values. Public schools were established and, particularly during and immediately after World War I, served as aggressive agents of assimilation. Travel writers, immigration promoters, educators, and social workers in the 1920s and 1930s adopted more selective policies. They gained an appreciation of ethnic foods, dances, songs, folkways, clothing, and special holidays. Increasingly, these came to be seen as distinctive ethnic characteristics worthy of celebration and preservation, provided the immigrants learned enough English to function effectively in Canadian society and became familiar with and accepted British parliamentary institutions of law and governance.
In the 1960s the Canadian federal government, in an effort to placate French Canadian aspirations, initiated measures to make the country more bilingual and bicultural. When federal money was provided to promote the French language and French Canadian culture, other ethnic groups demanded that they too share in this largess. The result was a new Canadian policy of multilingualism and multiculturalism.
The contrasting images of the Canadian Mosaic and the American melting pot identify but probably also exaggerate differences in the acculturation of immigrants into North American societies. A Canadian historian has suggested that assimilative processes are clearly evident on both sides of the border. Like the different ingredients in a stew, the various ethnic groups are being "cooked." The main difference seems to be the degree of nationalist heat applied and the speed with which distinctive cultural characteristics are softened. Certainly, the distinct tiles of an ethnic and cultural mosaic, as drawn in the old Canadian Department of the Interior atlases, no longer accurately portray Canadian Prairie society. The edges are becoming mushy in Canada, while many communities in the United States continue to be shaped and enriched by the diverse cultural traditions and treasures of their immigrant pioneers.
Ted D. Regehr University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary
Gibbon, J. M. Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1938.
Katz, Yossi, and John C. Lehr. The Last Best West: Essays on the Historical Geography of the Canadian Prairies. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999.
Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The Cultural Contributions of Other Ethnic Groups. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1970.